According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. reached 44.7 gigawatts (GW) of total installed capacity in Q1 2017 – which is expected to triple by 2022, to 128 GW. As solar projections continue to skyrocket, and average costs of photovoltaic (PV) panels decrease, the economics of solar will rival that of fossil fuels.
Rooftop and ground-mounted PV systems are most common, but floating photovoltaics (FPVs or floating solar) have become the rising champion for quick, convenient, and cost-effective power production. Simply put, floating solar systems allow standard PV modules to be installed on the surface of inland bodies of water. Unlike rooftop and ground-mounted systems, floating solar technology is creatively designed to take advantage of mostly unused water “realty”, rather than taking over land that could be used for agricultural or municipal purposes. By capitalizing on unused water spaces, or making these spaces more dual-purpose, floating solar can meet economic demands for energy production, while offering secondary environmental benefits, such as reducing evaporation.
Japan, with its limited land, has already turned to FPV to provide clean energy, without wasting its most precious resources. Other island nations like the UK, Taiwan, and Singapore have done the same. While the attractiveness of FPV for island nations is obvious, other developed countries are slowly seeking to implement this technique in an effort to pursue their goals of maximizing the economic value of untapped acreage.
[50,000 solar panels create a 1.35 MW floating solar system at the Yamakura Dam in the Chiba Prefecture, just east of Tokyo]
Like island nations, countries interested in pursuing floating solar must first create pilots within their agricultural industry, using properties like wineries and dairy farms; these are extremely energy and water intensive industries which cannot afford to waste resources. With floating solar, agricultural based industries are able to repurpose their water retention ponds and irrigation reservoirs for energy production.
Pilot programs are currently in place at the University of Central Florida, and at the Kunde Family Winery in California. The biggest operating FPV system is located at the Orlando Utilities Commission. The progress of FPV has been slow but steady; conditions for adoption vary from state-to-state.
[A 31.5 kWp floating solar system at the Orlando Utilities Commission’s storm water storage reservoir]
Florida and California, with their perpetually sunny climates, may seem like ideal states for solar technologies to flourish, but even they have experienced delays in implementing more floating solar systems, due to slow legislative procedures. As unlikely as it may seem, the birthplace of floating solar just happens to be Massachusetts.
Massachusetts’ strong financial incentives and environmentally motivated population have turned it into one of the biggest markets for solar. This rapid expansion occurred in many environmentally valuable locations, especially on agricultural land. However, regulatory, environmental, and agricultural groups quickly faced conflicts between wanting to support solar development, and their core mandates regarding land appropriation.
In response, the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) established the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program. It created land use, and design standards for ground-mounted projects, developed siting criteria with financial incentives and deterrents, and incentives to use certain technologies, or selling to certain population segments.
However, land that was scarce or used for farming, limited agricultural landholders’ access to solar. On the other hand, floating solar could provide the DOER a way to further its goals of solar development; the same solar system used on irrigation ponds for rice patties in Japan, would adapt perfectly to the irrigation and tail water recovery ponds of Massachusetts cranberry bogs.
FPV was a clear solution for cranberry farmers, who were already under financial strain from restructuring. As more international projects came online, however, the DOER realized that the potential benefits of floating solar could impact the entire state on a much greater level. Massachusetts is a high power consumption state with constrained land space. By utilizing vacant and otherwise unusable spaces in an environmentally-friendly way, floating solar is able to preserve Massachusetts’ usable land, reduce land clearing, and mitigate the water evaporation that has caused the state to suffer several recent droughts.
In August of 2017, the SMART program was finalized to include and emphasize floating solar. Currently ranked 7th in solar capacity, Massachusetts is set to climb the national ranking in 2018, with its upcoming boom in floating solar. Future projections are estimated to hit 2,377 MW over the next five years, but Massachusetts should reach this number even faster, thanks to floating solar. The rapid increase of installed solar capacity, along with new solar jobs, will likely influence other states to follow suit. Just as Japan pioneered floating solar for many island nations, Massachusetts is on track to break barriers, and set the standard for other US states. Not since the Mayflower dropped her anchor in Plymouth Harbor has a floating object had such a big impact on such a little state.
Bernard Prouvost is Chairman and Co-founder of Ciel & Terre, International. Established in 2006 as a renewable Independent Power Producer (IPP), Ciel & Terre has been fully devoted to floating solar PV since 2011. The company pioneered the first specific and industrialized system, Hydrelio ®, to make solar panels float on water, with criteria such as cost-effectiveness, safety, longevity, resistance to winds and waves, simplicity, drinking water compliance and optimized electrical yield.
Ciel & Terre | http://www.ciel-et-terre.net
Victor Stolt-Nielsen Holten is Managing Partner of Sun2o Partners, LLC, a Connecticut-based renewable energy company that specializes in unconventional system design, project development, and financing. Relationships with a variety of manufacturers allow Sun2o to take advantage of the most advanced technology available, to create a customized system that suits the needs of their clients.
Corey Kupersmith is also Managing Partner of Sun2o Partners, LLC.